It’s hard to imagine that a resurgent delta variant of the SARS-CoV-2 virus is not the only on-going serious threat to the public’s health. But what is emerging now, as wildfires consume millions of acres of woodlands across North America, is that ferocious fires and smoke conditions are causing fatalities and widespread exacerbation of many chronic illnesses throughout the continent, even in communities and cities not actually on fire. Record breaking heat, rampaging wildfires and widely dispersed smoke and haze all represent grave threats to public health.
Earlier this month, record setting heat waves sent temperatures 20 to 30 degrees above normal in parts of western U.S. and Canada, further drying out soil and other brush that were already experiencing severe drought. According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, about 60 percent of the U.S. West is currently facing sustained drought conditions.
Nationally, more than 3.3 million acres have already burned across the U.S. in over 37,000 fires — all in just the first seven months of the year. In California, wildfires had already burned three times more land by early July than at the same point during last year’s record-breaking fire season. And in Oregon, the deadly Bootleg Fire has already scorched over 400,000 acres — making it the largest wildfire of the season to date as it alters wind patterns and spawns its own lightning.
At this point there can be no doubt that climate change is responsible for exacerbating the conditions that put at least 29 million Americans at risk of wildfires each year. As temperatures in the U.S. West have increased, extreme drought conditions have worsened, leaving dried out forests as tinder boxes awaiting a spark. This past June was the hottest month ever on record for North America, with the average temperature eclipsing the previous record from June 2012 and nearly 2 degrees warmer than the average temperature between 1991 and 2020.
Unlike other natural disasters, wildfires endanger the health and well-being of populations near and far. Toxic gases and particulate matter found in smoke from fires in the West can increase risks of hospitalizations and fatalities from exacerbations of obstructive pulmonary disease, asthma, and cardiac disease as far away as the East Coast. Last week the Air Quality Index in New York City reached 157 — the worst level in 15 years and unsafe for vulnerable individuals, including pregnant women or those with asthma or COPD.
As the nature and extent of the threat evolves with a changing climate, so too must our ability to manage and mitigate near-term risks. In other words, while we seek to galvanize the world around the urgent need to slow climate change, here are three of many possible mitigation strategies that could help save lives and protect the environment in the near term.
First, the U.S. needs a new approach to forest management. The Biden administration can start by focusing on updating our land management policies, which are outdated and unsustainable in today’s new climate reality, by creating a national wildfire strategy that reflects the growing impact of global warming and provides guidance for states that are facing chronic droughts and worsening wildfires. Land management must be reimagined away from the longstanding goal of extinguishing or preventing all fires, and towards a sustainable strategy that incorporates controlled burns at low intensity and in prescribed, contained areas. In the U.S. today, there are approximately 160 wildfires currently burning — but just four of these blazes are “prescribed” burns under control.
Second, where and how we build must also be closely evaluated — developers and state officials must work in tandem with insurance companies to understand and convey the regional hazard risks. A recent study found that over half of all buildings in the continental U.S. are located in disaster hotspots, and that construction in wildfire-prone areas had grown the most of any hazard environment. In many cases, people living in areas accustomed to wildfires aren’t even aware of the risks. Only a handful of states — including California, as of this year — have laws on the books requiring real estate agents or sellers to inform buyers of wildfire risk. Communities on the cusp of known fire zones must be designed or retrofitted to be more fire safe, with evacuation routes well-established and well-mapped.
Third, we need to ensure that measures designed to prevent fires do not create additional risk to vulnerable populations. Pacific Gas and Electric’s strategy to intentionally shut down power in regions deemed to be at particularly high risk for wildfires may make theoretical sense. But many people are electricity dependent for medical equipment such as breathing assistance devices. And many more, including seniors and people with chronic conditions, may be highly heat vulnerable and in danger without air conditioning. As climate change continues to fuel deadly heat waves, we must ensure our power grids are resilient in the face of surging electricity demands.
But if all we do is try to prevent and mitigate wildfires and fail to address the root causes of human-induced climate disaster, we’ll be destined to experience unending and worsening catastrophes. It’s worth remembering that wildfires — as well as droughts, hurricanes, and floods — are naturally occurring phenomena. But it is the political and social conditions that create disasters.
As much of the West burns and heat waves continue to scorch parts of the country, the worst partisan politics in recent memory seems to have paralyzed our capacity to prepare and respond to major threats to humanity — from a surging pandemic to devastating climate-linked crises. It’s not too late to alter our policies and turn things around, but time is running out. Is anyone listening?
Dr. Irwin Redlener (@IrwinRedlenerMD) is the founding director, National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University’s Earth Institute as well as professor of pediatrics at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine and a senior research scholar. He is also a public health analyst for NBC/MSNBC and the author of, “Americans at Risk: Why We’re Not Prepared for Megadisasters and What We Can Do Now,” and “The Future of Us: What the Dreams of Children Mean for 21st Century America.”
Sean Hansen (@sean__hansen) is a staff associate at the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University’s Earth Institute, where he focuses on issues of COVID-19 and children in disaster.